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Boiling Point

Most Friday evenings, worn-out from the week, our family goes out to eat. Before long, one son or the other leans against me in the booth. I politely ask him to stop. He forgets and leans again. I ask, he leans, I ask, he leans. Within minutes my adrenaline is pumping, my pulse hopping, my body on alert. As my generation likes to say, I am going to lose it.

It's axiomatic: When you become a parent, you become a person with a temper. Where there are children, there is friction. And where friction meets exhaustion, there is combustion. While experts rush in to fill all kinds of parental needs, no one prepares us for the force of our tempers. We have to learn strategies piecemeal  -- from books, experience, serendipity, the successes and failures of our own parents  -- and even those of us who work hard at it sometimes fail abjectly.

I like that expression "losing it" because anger encompasses the loss of so much more than temper. In the restaurant, I lose my composure, dignity, sense of scale, belief in reason, and, perhaps most important, my sense of humor. I gain instead a host of demon voices. On my right shoulder, my parents tsk me for my failure to instill discipline. On my left, the beatific parents whisper sweetly that I should put my child's needs above my own. I feel both spineless and rigid. Thank heaven for my reasonable husband, who calmly separates me and my son.

Often anger is like this: arising from the unending neediness of children (and the nagging suspicion that other children are less needy than yours). I have just spent 20 minutes packing the boys into winter gear, and the younger one speaks the immortal words: "I have to pee." Or the more immortal words, "I peed in my pants," or a hundred others: "I didn't want the bread cut." "He started it." "I'm not going." "Why can't you be reasonable?" I ask, but he is being perfectly reasonable for a 4-year-old. It is part of the lifelong battle between dependence and independence; he is asserting the latter, while I am wishing someone else could sweat the details for once, play Solomon in the morally complex disputes my sons bring me daily. I want to say, I have been wise for hours and now I am going to be really crabby for a while.

I have a great strategy for times like these, and sometimes I remember to use it. I tell myself I am their first teacher; they must learn, by my example and my guidance, how to act kindly and thoughtfully. That shifts the roles so that we are no longer at odds but working toward a greater good. I am no longer a seething bundle but a guide with a calm voice (the one I internalized from their nursery-school teachers).

Sometimes, anger is more chaotic, less containable. In my household, there is a lot of head bopping, kicking, body blocking  -- the stage business of boys. Once they start hurting each other, they slide into phase two of anger-provocation: not stopping when asked. (Friends tell me I am lucky I do not have sulkers or whiners, who are far more efficient at pushing their parents' buttons.) My job here is to talk my sons back down. The problem is that I am so mad I do not want to. What I want is to "murderize" them. That is the dirty secret about anger: It is delicious to give in to it, live in the moment of it. It is so much easier than the work of being constructive. Of course, it just adds more work later: apologizing, calming down, making sure everyone's self-respect is intact.

All of this is easy compared with the anger that grows out of primal conflicts. I remember the terrible period when my older son, as a kind of yearlong physics experiment, knocked over his baby brother whenever he walked past him. My maternal instincts told me to protect the baby, which meant my older son became the threat, the intruder. I have never been so angry with him. But life is made up of primal conflicts, and anger is an unavoidable part of the complex and cyclical rhythm of a shared life; a household without anger may be a highly evolved household, but I suspect it is more likely a repressed or depressed household.

When the anger cuts deep, I have learned to look deep into it to move beyond it. That year I eventually figured out how to turn around my anger and reexamine it. My son was acting in an unlovable way, which made it hard for me to love him, which made me walk around in a cloud of guilt and shame. This conflict would not hurt so much if we did not mean so much to each other. When I could find my way back to those feelings, I could transcend the anger; instead of yelling, I would want to hug him, have a good cry, and then we would start fresh; sometimes I think his behavior was a primitive plea for such a catharsis.

In my life as a parent, I also go through long blissful periods. My boys and I move tranquilly through our days, and anger is a distant memory. Meanwhile, all around us, parents are losing it. They are at the supermarket making threats; they are listening in horror as their parents' words, the ones they swore they would never utter, ricochet out of their mouths. They do not see anything funny about any of this.

The trick about eavesdropping on other parents' anger is to be kind instead of smug. I've been a mom long enough to know that before long, someone will start leaning on me.